There is a lovely scene midway through Easy Virtue where the main character Laurita telephones John to accept his proposal of marriage. We see neither character, but the story is told instead through the facial expressions of an eavesdropping hotel telephonist. It is quite brilliant.
Sadly, aside from a couple of lovely camera tricks, that is the only standout aspect of an otherwise pedestrian film. We are five films into our journey and we’ve hit our first dud. It isn’t a bad film, it’s just a bit dull. It has nothing to say.
I’ve remarked before upon the use of visuals to tell a story, but here the plan falls down. Adapted from a Noël Coward play, Easy Virtue doesn’t transfer well to the silent screen. It is too heavily dependent upon dialogue to succeed.
Last week I remarked that Novello’s character was less wrong man, more wronged man and it is a similar story here. Isabel Jeans’ character Laurita is wrongly believed of adultery and subjected to a very public divorce. Hiding out in the South of France she- unwittingly entrances Robin Irvine’s character. He proposes and she says ‘don’t you want to know more about me’ but he persists. They marry upon returning to England but his family- for largely unconvincing reasons- ostracise her, swiftly turning her new husband against her too. At this point the story of her public shame becomes known. Laurita leaves, allowing her husband an uncontested divorce and Hitchcock another neat ends-as-it-began closing courtroom scene to bookend the film.
Except that another entirely superfluous scene is tacked on the end with the protagonist- looking for all the world like Sunset Boulevard’s Norma Desmond- declaring to the crowding photographers “Shoot! There’s nothing left to kill!“. Ugh.
During the filming of King Kong some of the cast and crew surreptitiously made a second film at night using the same sets- The Most Dangerous Game. This film features much of the same cast and crew as Downhill, as well as using a play script that suffers from an uncharacteristically weak adaptation by Eliot Standard and sharing an overall theme of an unjustly shamed protagonist fleeing to France before the story turns full-circle. It’s tempting to see Easy Virtue as Downhill’s low-rent cousin. Novello will have made great sport with his friend and rival Noël Coward over the comparison.
So, what is good? Well the scene with the hotel telephonist is probably the best thing Hitchcock had committed to film by this point. And the opening is strong. There is a lot of interesting first-person imagery, most notably when the judge raises his monocle to see a blurred courtroom more clearly. While it isn’t sustained, there is some worthwhile film-making here. Isabel Jeans is pretty good in the lead role too. I think that’s probably it.
Does the fact that only poor quality prints remain explain, in part, why the film is so disappointing? On the contrary, I would argue that the disappointment explains the neglect. A shame.